The Grafenegg Festival: A programme as eclectic as its quirky castle venue

Alexandra Coghlan takes a trip to Austria to sample the delights of this year's Grafenegg Festival, curated by the pianist Rudolf Buchbinder.

The Grafenegg Festival
16 August - 8 September 2013

England might have given the classical world country house opera, opening up the gardens and gazebos of our finest stately homes to picnicking music-lovers each summer, but Austria has gone one better. The Grafenegg Festival, taking place annually in the beautiful Danube valley of Wachau, raises an important question: why content yourself with a country house when you could have a castle instead?

And what a castle it is. Schloss Grafenegg’s origins may be sixteenth-century, but it was the nineteenth-century that transformed it into what it is today – an architectural Tardis. August Ferdinand, Earl Breuner-Eneckevoirth, had a vision for a home not bounded by period of style but embracing all in a historical riot of crenellation, castellation and wood-panelling. From neo-renaissanance to Biedermeier it’s all here, in a Gothic fantasy come to life. The castle itself is at the centre of the Grafenegg estate which has been home to the festival since 2007. As audiences have grown so has the festival, building the futuristic outdoor amphitheatre the Wolkenturm (“Cloud-Tower”), a new indoor auditorium, and converting the original stables into yet another concert-hall.

And the music has grown at the same pace. Curated by Rudolf Buchbinder, Austria’s finest pianist, this year’s festival artists include the Vienna Philharmonic, Valery Gergiev, Charles Dutoit, Diana Damrau, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Janine Jansen, Semyon Bychkov and the Labeque sisters. It’s an impressive line-up by anyone’s standards, and discovered in this quiet, storybook-fantasy of a valley in Lower Austria it has the additional appeal of context. Vienna and Salzburg may have their cultural treasures, but they also have crowds and tourists. Grafenegg, by contrast, is a peaceful kingdom indeed.

Part of the festival’s appeal is the variety of its programme, reflecting the eclectic interests of the castle’s original founder in the breadth of the programming. In one weekend we went from the epic spectacle of Mahler’s Third Symphony, to the irreverent virtuosity of the 12 Cellos of the Berlin Philharmonic (programming Burt Bacharach alongside Purcell) and a perfectly-formed chamber recital juxtaposing the familiar and the unknown.

The Mahler, framed in the dramatic lines of the Wolkenturm, was a chance to hear both Grafenegg’s resident festival orchestra – Vienna’s Tonkünstler Orchestra – and exciting young Colombian conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada, who will be making his debut with the LSO next season. The Tonkünstler have grown tremendously in recent years, finally stepping out of the shadow of their Viennese orchestral competition. Performing this symphony was a major milestone in their development. Aided by the Vienna Boys Choir and the women of the Wiener Singverein they conjured a vivid vision of the composer’s bucolic rhapsody.

The strings in particular brought a warmth and connectedness to their playing that was striking in an outdoor acoustic, and if woodwind couldn’t quite match them for unanimity they did yield some strong soloists, particularly the off-stage post-horn who more than met the demands of the third movement. Mezzo soloist Elisabeth Kulman was perhaps an unusual choice for Mahler, favouring an unusually straight tone, but it projected beautifully in the space and the clarity helped throw focus back to the all-important texts.

From a Mahlerian symphony orchestra we downsized the next night to just a cello section. The 12 cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic have been playing as an ensemble in their own right for over 40 years and have the showmanship to prove it. More than just a novelty act, their combination of lighthearted humour and virtuosity makes them the King’s Singers of the instrumental world, capable of playing any amount of Burt Bacharach without becoming cheap. The ensemble have commissioned throughout their history, creating a huge catalogue of works for the current group to draw on. Here, we saw them add another to their collection in the form of Brett Dean’s 12 Angry Men. Grafenegg’s 2013 composer in residence drew heavily on the Sidney Lumet film for a work which sets up a narrative framework for an exercise in musical structure and development. Each assigned a character, the cellists are heard to persuade, argue, agree and interact in phrases charged with rhetorical intent. Dean’s writing prevents his concept becoming too literal, and the densely contrapuntal result is one that begs for an immediate second-hearing.

It’s rare that we get to hear a single instrument used in so many different ways, but by limiting themselves to just cellos this ensemble are forced to explore the limits of conventional textures and techniques. An arrangement of Ravel’s Pavane pour une Infante defunte drew on gauzy harmonics to mimic (or even outdo) the delicacy of the original, while Boris Blacher’s Blues, Espagnola und Rumba Philharmonica transformed the players into a single strumming guitar, pulsing with percussive energy. But it was Juan Tizol’s reworking of Duke Ellington’s Caravan that demanded most of the players, drawing an uncanny impression of vocal or trumpet scatting from the strings.

For pure musical pleasure however it was the simplest, smallest concert of the festival that prevailed. Combining the young British Doric Quartet with Brett Dean (seen here both as composer and violist), it paired Dean’s own Epitaphs with Brahms’ Quintet No. 2 in G major. Dean’s melodic language is inscrutable, demanding rather than desiring multiple listens, but as miniature soundscapes his Epitaphs offer plenty to a first-time audience. The other-worldly ostinato of the opening, the fractious counterpoint for all five instruments in II, the shifting clouds of harmonic colour in V, all lingered in the ears as sonic fragments.

The Doric have a technical assurance that leaves them completely free to shape the intent of their music, and the Brahms – thick with the addition of the extra viola – offered us the chance to hear their musical ideas as well as see their considerable skill. Theirs is an ardent, engaged sound well-suited to this repertoire, but they also proved themselves capable of finding more restraint for the Adagio. Gradually thawing out during the Allegretto, they grew to a pacy climax in the Vivace, bounding to the finish-line.

In Grafenegg, Buchbinder has created a festival as eclectic as the castle venue itself. You might be confronted or horrified by your encounters here (whether architectural or musical) but you won’t be indifferent. Austria may be a by-word for musical conservatism, but there’s nothing middle-of-the-road about this quirky, endearing festival. 

Schloss Grafenegg, the sixteenth century castle which hosts the festival.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.